By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
All 13 non freshmen on this Joy Christian baseball roster were there May 14 when the team was one out from its first state title before losing in extra innings to Apache Junction.
They were there a week later when the school went through academic and athletic upheaval. The exit of the Heart For the City mission program and resignation of football coach and athletic director Brian Cole and several other coaches decimated most Eagles teams.
But the baseball team is still there, with a 14-0 record following Tuesday’s 1-0 victory against Scottsdale Christian. And it did not take players and coaches long to decide they were staying at the north Glendale private school.
“We knew there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of change. Pretty much right after that, we had all the players over to my house. We talked everything out. They asked questions of what it’s going to look like. Our baseball guys were extremely loyal and wanted to continue to be a part of what we’re doing out here,” Coach Klent Corley said.
With only senior Isaiah Leach graduating, the rest of the Division IV runner up team could make another run if it chose to. Only one starter, senior Tyller Graham, chose to transfer.
More known as a football player, Graham followed many of his teammates to Phoenix Christian. He is now back for the Cougars baseball team after sitting out the first half of the year for transferring. The Cougars will have a return game at the Eagles April 12.
The rest of the team was thinking baseball and redemption on the diamond. They did not take long to reach a consensus.
“We wanted to come back. We wanted to get back to the finals and win it,” senior catcher Joey Martinez said.
First, though, Martinez and fellow baseball seniors Rylan Collins and Anthony Quattrocchi took a detour through other varsity sports. Collins was the varsity football quarterback while Martinez and Quattrocchi were regular members of the basketball rotation.
None of them had played that sport competitively before. Yet all willingly took one for the greater Joy Christian team.
“It was important for us to do that, to help out the kids who really wanted to play those sports. We wanted to make sure those programs didn’t die,” Collins said.
The other three Joy Christian boys sports — basketball, football and soccer — posted a combined record of 9-39 this year. Seven of those wins came from a basketball team with two starters returning, including Collins.
Girls volleyball and basketball were a combined 1-37. Softball is 0-7 thus far. To be fair, only volleyball was a playoff program recently.
However, for the fall sports in particular, even fielding a team was a victory of sorts.
“It’s different because these kids don’t grow up together. Sometimes it’s difficult to see that sense of pride in your school. This year I was able to see that more than I really ever have through our guys,” Coach Corley said.
The coach also had to decide if he was going to return for a fifth year. A little more than a year ago, Dream City Church bough the Community Church of Joy and made it a branch campus.
Before this academic year began the school went through wholesale changes in nearly every respect. Corley said he is glad he stayed.
“Right away there are questions because there is a lot of change. We lost that Heart For the City program which had a lot of students and a lot of athletes,” Coach Corley said. “But I’ll tell you what, I didn’t know the administration that was coming in. It’s been one of the most enjoyable years I’ve had as a teacher. They’ve been great.”
Now back in their main sport, the senior trio have been the cornerstones of the Eagles’ 13?-0 start through Monday. Other than an opening 3-1 win against 3A school Queen Creek Casteel, Joy Christian has been dominant.
With classifications once again based on enrollment, last year’s playoff opponents Apache Junction and Buckeye are back in 4A. Perennial power Tucson Desert Christian is still in 2A but that program is starting over, as a 22-1 loss to Joy Christian last month showed.
That leaves the Eagles as clear 2A title favorites. Coach Corley said he and his staff have been careful not to adopt a title or bust approach to the season, wanting his team to enjoy the entire year.
Yet he admitted this group is unusually focused.
“There’s not many teams that will have that experience we had of defeat at the end of the year and be able to stay together. They have some hunger that is unique,” Coach Corely said.
That unity and sense of purpose was born in the span of a couple weeks of last May when the program could have fallen apart. Instead, adversity made this team stronger and more determined to stay together.
“I think (last year) has brought us closer together, even though we were good friends already,” Collins said.